Sleep is even more important than we thought

More than once have my well-intentioned suggestions for maintaining health been dismissed as not worth the effort. Even my wonderful mother, at 89 years, will sometimes say, “I don’t care if I live longer so stop telling me to exercise and eat right.” Other things I’ve heard are “we’ve all got to go some time” and “getting old is just a natural part of life so why resist it.”

One of my latest suggestions to mom was that she improve her sleep. Living longer maybe isn’t the goal but living well while you are here certainly is worth some attention. And good sleep could be a key.

Poor sleep is common complaint of seniors and one I have experienced first hand during the past 20 years. The effects have been nothing short of crippling – mild depression, a constant struggle with fatigue, poor memory and high blood pressure. When I am able to get on a roll with exercise, eating dinner early and an “early to bed, early to rise” schedule, I gradually find myself losing weight and feeling optimistic, cheerful and back to normal – a remarkable switch from my sleep-deprived self. I suspect that many seniors who aren’t sleeping well may experience symptoms similar to mine but may just consider fatigue part of normal aging.

Most of us have the general idea that our bodies repair and rejuvenate while we are sleeping. The details of this “rejuvenation” and why a prolonged lack of sleep can even be fatal are still not completely understood. But, researchers may be on the edge of figuring out why we and all other animals must sleep well to live well.

It was previously known that a toxic compound associated with Alzheimer’s disease increases in the brain while we are awake and decreases while we sleep. New research in rats showed that their brain cells shrink during sleep, expelling toxins and creating space for fluid (cerebrospinal fluid) and waste products to move out of the brain. When the rats weren’t sleeping the brain cells swelled again and the removal of waste slowed dramatically.

The researchers believe that removal of waste products from the brain may be the primary reason that sleep is so essential. And, they are hoping that this discovery will help in treating or preventing Alzheimer’s disease.

All in the numbers?

Several other studies with large numbers of subjects showed some additional benefits of sleep and clues to the amount we need. We each may need slightly different amounts of sleep but the evidence is stacking up in favor of a solid 7.5 to 8.5 hours. Sleeping more than seven hours has been associated with a reduction in the risk of fatal health attacks and cardiovascular disease by as much as 24 percent.

A study looking at the differences between individuals getting 6.5 hours and 7.5 hours, showed negative changes in genes influencing inflammation, immune system responses and response to stress with only 6.5 hours.

Genetic changes associated with diabetes and cancer were also activated with less sleep and reversed with increased rest. And, individuals sleeping 8 to 8.5 hours each night and waking at the same time each day have less body fat than individuals getting less than 8 hours.

Trial and error

Getting good sleep may require experimenting to find the right combination of room temperature, darkness and the time you put yourself to bed. Our bodies have a natural rhythm but artificial light, work demands, pain conditions, snoring partners, alcohol, caffeine and lack of activity may make falling asleep and staying asleep difficult.

If you have sleep problems, try some of the following or speak with your medical practitioner about what you can do to get your ZZZs and feel better.

Try these suggestions for better sleep

• Keep your bedroom dark – even lights from clocks can be stimulating

• Get off the computer, tablet, Kindle, smartphone or other LED screens for a couple hours before bed

• Eat early in the evening and don’t go to bed on a very full stomach

• Go to bed earlier and at the same time every night

• Get up at the same time every day

• Drink 6 to 8 cups of water during the day but don’t drink fluids within a couple hours of bedtime

• If you take diuretics, talk to you medical provider about taking it in the morning rather than at night

• Avoid alcohol close to bedtime – alcoholic drinks can make you sleepy at first but cause restless sleep later

• Exercise regularly and early in the day – late in the day can cause wakefulness

• Consider limiting caffeine 4 hours (or more) before bedtime – tea, coffee or even hot chocolate might keep you awake

Leslie Shallcross is a registered dietitian and associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Services in Anchorage. Call her at 786-6313.

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